What is the largest living organism on the planet? A number of candidates spring to mind, such as the 100-foot long, 190-ton blue whale, or the 350-foot tall coastal redwood tree, both giants in their own right. Surprisingly, another candidate is a honey mushroom (Armillaria ostoyae) growing in Oregon’s Malheur National Forest! This superlative organism, known as the “Humongous Fungus”, covers an area of 2,385 acres or 3.7 square miles—roughly the size of Burns, Oregon!
Honey mushrooms parasitize conifer trees by tapping into their roots and siphoning off water and sugars, eventually killing their hosts. In fact, the Humongous Fungus of Oregon was discovered by scientists investigating the cause of a massive die-off of trees in the area.
The familiar stalk and cap of a mushroom is but a small visible part—the fruiting body or “sporocarp”—of a vast fungal network of connected cells known as mycelium. The Humongous Fungus is considered a single organism because all the cells in its 2,385-acre network share the same DNA and communicate with one another, sharing resources via the mycelium.
Fungi are consummate decomposers, decontextualizers, virtuosic maestros of soil remediation. They liaise with plants underground, symbiotically exchanging those fundamental currencies of life: water, carbohydrates, protection from attack. In some cases—such as with the honey mushroom—the symbiosis is parasitic rather than commensal or mutualistic.
Akin to a universal solvent, fungi liberate nutrients that others find impossible to extract and digest on their own. They sequester toxins in their flesh and synthesize potent chemical compounds de novo in a sort of mycological alchemy. Fungi achieve these inimitable feats, among much, much else—and they get it done with absolutely zero fanfare. Theirs is a dirty job, lowly and thankless, but it is an indispensable service nonetheless.
Written by Janelle Wicks/Photos by Isabelle Fleuraud, Jon Brown, and John Scharff
On the morning of October 8th, just one week after beginning their work on a full tree inventory and risk assessment, Jon Brown and Karen Tillou, discovered that the infamous John Scharff Blue Spruce at Refuge Headquarters was experiencing a trauma.
A crack had formed between codominant stems of the main trunk. Both stems were leaning outward and presenting imminent failure of at least one. Despite the unfortunate circumstances for this particular tree, it was the perfect opportunity for us to come together as a coalition and consider the options under the outline of our predetermined factors to consider:
Risk to life and property – Moderately used public space where birders linger. Positioned directly adjacent to a historic Civilian Conservation Corps building which currently functions at the Refuge’s Administrative Offices.
Ecological Value – This tree has a long record of being a nesting location for a variety of species, most notably great-horned owls. The dense branching provides great cover for many migratory songbird species.
Historical Value – This blue spruce was planted in 1966 by then Refuge Manager John Scharff. His intentions were to grow it as an outdoor Christmas tree that could be strung with lights every year. It is a well-known and appreciated tree to many long-time visitors.
The challenge? Minimize the risk to life and property while maintaining as much of the tree’s integrity as possible to hold on to the ecological and historical value. With everyone present and able to discuss these factors and develop the appropriate response plan it became obvious that if a tree was going to fail – this was perfect tree to do so and at the perfect time!
The first thing that needed to happen was to stabilize the tree’s failing stems so that they would not fall before someone could be contracted to treat the tree. Jon installed a 5/8″ rope in the tree canopy to provide some temporary support and reduce the pressure on the damaged stems. In November, Jon will return with another arborist to remove the failing stem and provide care for the remaining stems. The hope is for the tree to remain largely intact with a new opening in the crown. This opening may in and of itself create additional habitat benefits for nesting birds such as our beloved great-horned owls.
When you are duck banding through the night with 20 other people you hardly know but have a lot in common with, sleep-deprived conversation tend go here, there, and everywhere in a delirious attempt to stay awake until the sun comes up. These conversations often don’t go anywhere, lost to the sunrise and sleepy morning. In August 2019, Portland Audubon’s Teresa Wicks and volunteers Jon Brown and Karen Tillou did not know that their midnight musings would become the actuality that they are today.
Teresa had just completed a season of living at and working out of P Ranch to conduct the Refuge’s breeding bird surveys. Jon and Karen are long time Malheur admirers and visitors turned volunteers for both Portland Audubon and Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. They are also arborists. The conversation went from queries about the P Ranch Orchard to concerns about the remaining lifespan of the cottonwood stands which support the heron rookery at Sodhouse Ranch. What about stand replacements at Headquarters? How are the trees managed on the Refuge? Is there a way to get involved and help?
It was obvious to everyone that this was more than casual banter but had true substance and consequence. In January 2020, these midnight musings took the form of a Tree Management Meeting between Refuge Staff, Friends of Malheur NWR Leadership and Project Committee, Portland Audubon, and of course Jon and Karen.
We all learned the Refuge’s Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) mandates a Tree Management Plan, which was yet to be developed. The conversation started there. What would the plan look like? What trees/areas would be addressed? What factors would be considered when determining an action on any individual tree or stand? In the span of 4 hours we determined the areas of interest (from north to south):
P Ranch & Orchard
These areas needed to be inventoried and then assessed for risk to life and property in addition to ecological and historical values. The inventory should include age classes, stem diameters, crown height, etc. This inventory and risk assessment information should be documented in comprehensive maps with an accompanying report. All of this and more must be done before we can develop the Tree Management Plan from which we can begin to develop management actions.
We were all in agreement and with the Refuge’s full support, Jon and Karen went home to develop a proposal for conducting this inventory and assessment. Then… COVID. Jon and I spoke several times throughout the spring and were concerned that this project would have to be put off until 2021, thus further delaying the ability to develop a Tree Management Plan. Fortunately, Jon and Karen were able to quarantine and, under strict health and safety protocols, come to Malheur for the month of October to begin the work.
While they were here, I got to hear things from them like, ‘I’ve never spent 8 hrs at Benson Pond before. Today I met EVERY tree!’ or ‘There is something about visiting these trees at each location that makes me feel more intimately connected to the Refuge than I ever have.’ They spent the entire month conducting the inventory, gathering historical and biological information, and of course dealing with the unexpected.
(See Scharff’s Blue Spruce for that story)
There is much work to be done, across the Refuge, but we are off to a great start with some truly great people. In the weeks and months to come you can look forward to more articles, videos, and social media updates about John Scharff’s blue spruce, the Tree Management Plan, and eventually volunteer work parties to carry out some priority management actions in support of maintaining healthy tree stands at Malheur NWR.
The unique wetland oasis of Malheur Refuge, surrounded by the sagebrush and juniper desert characteristic of the northern Great Basin, is well known for its migratory bird life. While a few of those bird species live year-round at the Refuge, most move on as seasons change. By contrast, nearly all of the mammals occurring at Malheur Refuge stay put all year. Smaller mammals hibernate or otherwise go into torpor, while others weather the frigid winters by layering up under fat and fur and being resourceful.
Distinctive mammalian habitats on the Refuge include large freshwater marshes containing extensive stands of emergent aquatic vegetation; riparian areas bordering streams and canals; irrigated meadows; semi-arid grassland desert areas dominated by sagebrush and greasewood; and basaltic rimrocks.
Some sixty mammal species call Malheur Refuge home. There are, for instance, at least 13 species of bats, as well as 25 different rodent species. But the mammals that capture visitors’ attention most readily tend to be the large ones: deer, coyotes, bobcats, pronghorn. Highlighted here are a few of our favorites.
Nearly every terrestrial habitat type at the Refuge is used by these widespread ungulates. Mule deer possess the keen senses required to avoid predation: acute hearing and sense of smell, as well as large eyes with a wide field of view. During the winter rut, bucks clash antlers to compete for breeding partners; these antlers are shed every spring to regrow in full by late summer.
The cunning and adaptable coyote is also widespread at Malheur Refuge. These omnivores consume a wide variety of plants and animals, allowing them to flourish in a variety of settings, from remote high desert to dense urban sprawl. The quiet mornings and evenings at the Refuge are often punctuated by yips and howls of these highly intelligent, social canids.
These large, stocky members of the mustelid family are usually nocturnal, using their massive claws to unearth burrowing prey such as ground squirrels and other rodents. Amazingly, badgers and coyotes are known to sometimes hunt burrowing mammals together! The coyote will chase down prey if it runs, while the badger will dig after prey if it heads underground into its burrow systems.
Sleek, powerful and playful, river otters are adapted to life in water, equipped with webbed hind feet and thick insulating fur. Related to badgers and weasels, otters prey on a variety of creatures including fish, crustaceans, and the occasional bird or small mammal.
Black-tailed jackrabbits (along with true rabbits) belong to the mammalian order Lagomorpha, a classification that sets them apart from other groups of small mammals such as rodents and shrews. While both rabbits and jackrabbits sport long ears and long hind legs, jackrabbits tend to be larger, with longer ears and limbs. In the heat of summer at Malheur Refuge, jackrabbits conserve energy by resting during the day and being active by night; this behavior switches over in the winter.
Pronghorn are capable of sustained sprints topping 50 miles per hour, making them the fastest land mammal in the Western Hemisphere. It’s thought that this impressive speed—which far outpaces any extant North American predator—is a vestigial trait that arose during the Pleistocene, when cheetah-like cats roamed North America’s grasslands and preyed on pronghorn. Read more about pronghorn in our blog post here.
The bobcat is one of two felids native to Malheur Refuge–the other being the mountain lion. Both are shy, solitary and mostly active at night, so sightings at the Refuge are uncommon to rare. Occasionally visitors are treated to the sight of a bobcat padding silently down a Refuge road, availing itself of a well-groomed trail as any sensible creature would.
Written by Ryan Robles/ Photos by Ryan Robles & Brianna Goehring
“Oh, the places you’ll go,”(Dr. Suess, 1990). This quote often crosses my mind when I look back on my journey through the field of natural resources and conservation. Just last year I was the Refuge’s Vegetation Inventory and Monitoring Intern, where I got the opportunity to get hands-on experience in a myriad of projects.
These projects ranged from studying aquatic vegetation, to bird impoundment surveys. Overall, the experience was one I will never forget and it solidified my interest in pursuing a science related career involving conservation. Once I went back to school in the fall, my search for the next step arose. Later in the year I heard about the monitoring projects the High Desert Partnership (HDP) was going to be working on in the coming summer, some of these projects taking place on the Refuge. Having piqued my interest I quickly applied and soon got an interview. Thanks to my past experience working in the field and the courses I was taking at Burns High School, I was hired along with four other local graduates. But as this year’s challenges arose early in the spring I wasn’t sure if there would be a chance to return to working in the field.
Thankfully, HDP was able to continue working despite the issues at hand and pretty soon the field season began. After a short introduction to the job, we began our first major project in the Pueblo Mountains.
This remote mountain range in southern Oregon holds some extremely valuable sagebrush steppe habitat. The project revolved around a newly created firebreak along one of the roads that goes through this pristine area. Since the area is prone to wildfire, the firebreak serves as a way to ensure habitat remains for the wildlife living in the area. Our job was to monitor what the vegetative response to the firebreak was. We did this by gathering data such as plant composition, shrub density, and various other procedures at ten predetermined plots over the course of two weeks.
After finishing this set of work, we quickly shifted gears into our next project that would take place near Warm Springs Reservoir. This project was led by the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Station and we assisted them in the colossal task of collecting data. This project dealt with fuel composition and how susceptible each type of fuel class is to wildfire.
There were 16 different fuel classifications that were determined by a variety of factors revolving around the types of vegetation present such as grasses, forbs, shrubs, and in what quantity these were in. For every fuel class we needed to gather data on 10 predetermined plots. Each plot involved clipping, plant composition, and picture taking. However I was only able to work on this project for a couple of weeks because soon the crew split up to work on both this project as well as on the refuge.
While some of the crew remained working with the research station on fuel class and eventually joined the rest of us at the refuge. The remainder of the crew including myself became involved with working on the refuge vegetation monitoring project. The refuge has a vast array of wet meadows that serve as wonderful habitat for wildlife. In order to keep tabs on the health of these meadows, a series of exclosures have been put up to ensure some small pieces of the land remain untouched by any treatments that the area undergoes. Our monitoring protocol had us record data inside and outside of these exclosures so that we could compare the data and see if the treatments are doing their job.
The protocol involved having us complete tasks such as clipping, plant composition, and pictures. Each day brought on new challenges, one day we could walk from the road to the plot in the matter of a minute, while the next could have us traversing a quarter of a mile through bulrush and cattails that were ten feet tall.
Overall, returning to the refuge was a delightful experience, having a solid standing on the layout of the refuge in addition to having experience with the vegetation enabled me to have the opportunity to practice skills I had already learned, while also building on new ones. Skills such as plant identification, navigating to plots, and working independently will all come in handy in the future. While I had only briefly dealt with wet meadow vegetation last year, and focused more on aquatic vegetation, coming back and being able to apply what I already knew as well as learning about another aspect of natural resources, such as wet meadows and sagebrush steppe was a very fruitful experience. With this I know the work I have been able to take part in these past few years will help me achieve my goals of working in the field of science and conservation.
As I now go on into my freshman year at the University of Idaho to study wildlife biology, I know these experiences have influenced me heavily and will continue to benefit me for years to come.